THE SIGIRIYA SAGA - [ Part 1 ]
The year is 481 AD. The Persian Ambassador and his entourage at a loss for words at the spectacle before them, stood staring in amazement. Before them was the gigantic stone figure of a crouching lion. In order to reach the palace on the summit of the rock of this fabled city, they had to first enter the mouth of this monstrous animal and follow the steps which led through its body to the beginning of the staircase leading to the top. They had never seen anything like it in the western world. Of course they had heard of the 'Hanging gardens of Babylon' built on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar in 591 BC which ranked as one of the wonders of the ancient world. The ambassador had in fact visited the site, Babylon being in proximity to his own country, Persia. But this was the year 481 AD. and they were in the royal city of Sigiriya on a diplomatic mission to present letters of accreditation to King Kasyappa whom they heard being referred to as "The God King". Still gazing at the palace on the summit of the rock, the ambassador thought that this was a king who had defied gravity ! In the Persian entourage there was a young diplomat named Shapur Kavad. Only 26 years of age, young Kavad had a meteoric rise in the Persian foreign service, and had been specially nominated by King Peroz to join this mission. But political considerations temporarily forgotten, young Shapur's thoughts were of a romantic nature. Travellers from the East and West who had visited Sigiriya related wondrous tales of this many splendoured city. They also spoke in rapturous terms of the beauty of Princess Uppalavanna and Princess Bodhi, King Kasyappa's daughters. The thought that he might get a glimpse of these two beauties during their audience with the King, set his youthful heart racing with excitement, and the blood pulsating through his veins.
Walking through the beautiful gardens on their way to the palace accompanied by two officials of the royal court, they were surprised at the number of foreigners residing in the city. Over there some Chinese merchants were bargaining with Sinhala traders. To their right were three Roman officials in animated discussion with high ranking nobles of the court. They were not surprised because they knew that this was a country which traded with the Roman Empire even during the reign of the Caesars, and there were Sinhala ambassadors in the imperial court in Rome. A high powered trade delegation from India bided their time patiently, awaiting their appointment with officials of the Ministry of Trade. They were intoxicated by the grandeur of this fabulous city - an intoxication that was almost painful until they became sufficiently sober to contemplate the dazzling wonder of this terrestrial paradise. One of the diplomats who happened to be a horticulturalist, noted in amazement that in the royal gardens each terrace had a different variety of plants and flowers all in full bloom - a masterpiece of landscape gardening that he had never seen anywhere in his travels..........beds of flowers in dazzling hues, gardens laden with fruit alongside which ran clear water murmuring in channels..........he seemed to be in a dream world.
This was Sigiriya, reputed to be the most beautiful garden city in Asia - probably in the world. Who was the genius who has left us to marvel at this jewel that has fired the imagination of writers and travellers and mesmerise the world today, over 1500 years after his demise ? History knows him as King Kasyappa the 1st, and Sigiriya is the story of this man. He was both a master and pawn of history who needed every ounce of political cunning to survive the swirling intrigue and grim spectre of betrayal while he ruled the land. He has been the victim of the usual cliched negative stereotypes - megalomaniac, egoist, and parricide, shunned by the clergy and his people for the barbaric murder of his father, the illustrious and much loved King Dhatusena.
Nothing so evinced the brilliance of Sigiriya as its architecture as its architecture, engineering , art and landscape gardening. The palace and residential quarters on the summit of the rock almost 4 acres in extent, and in fact the entire city was engineered to inspire awe. This is truly the work of human genius for engineering miracles were created here. For example, the swimming pool on the summit. What principles of hydraulics were used to change the water in this pool ? How was fresh drinking water provided to the palace complex ? There had to be a piping system installed beneath solid rock which provided running water 24 hours a day. There are always more questions than answers. The chronicler of the Culavamsa had no time for King Kasyappa who shifted the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya once the complex was complete, to escape the revenge of his half brother Prince Moggalana who fled to India. When recording the events of that period he wrote "What man would still hanker after the pleasures of life or of fame ?" Let history be the judge. I humbly opine that King Kasyappa had tremendous vision, and he translated this vision into action. It is his vision that will one day accord Sri Lanka the honour of having the 8th wonder of the world - Sigiriya. An eternal testimony to his psyche and spirit. Everything in Sigiriya invites the mind to contemplation. One's wonder knows no limits. It is the abode of beauty. The English poet Sir Walter Scott with all his talent for description would be at a loss for words here. Let me draw a timeline in history when King Kasyappa ruled the island. His contemporaries in the West were King Clovis of France and the legendary King Arthur of Britain, better known as Arthur and the knights of round table fame. In Constantinople (present day Istanbul) Emperor Justinian ruled the Byzantine empire. Pope Simplicius sat on the throne of St.Peter in the Vatican. When Sigiriya entered a golden age of splendour, what history records as 'The Dark Ages' loomed over Europe. In fact there still exists a record kept by an English monk named Gildas in which he writes of the breakdown of civilised society in Britain after the collapse of Roman rule. In the East, Sigiriya flourished to reach the peak of cultural perfection.
After King Kasyappa's death the city was abandoned. Virtually forgotten it lay wrapped in lush jungle foliage.Its existence had remained spectral, a memory dimmed to the point of invisibility until, thanks to the spade of the archaeologists Sigiriya bared her soul to us.
In the next instalment I shall commence with some insight regarding the Persian diplomatic mission, and Princess Bodhi & Uppalavanna, daughters of King Kasyappa. The late great eminent Professor Senerat Paranavitane mentions them in his epic THE STORY OF SIGIRIYA. His writings have been a source of inspiration to me. To be continued.......
Written By : Bernard VanCuylenburg